“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1 NIV)
מַֽעֲנֶה־רַּ֭ךְ יָשִׁ֣יב חֵמָ֑ה וּדְבַר־עֶ֝֗צֶב יַעֲלֶה־אָֽף׃
For individuals reared in a home of discord, an environment of bickering and contention has become a family tradition.
A young rabbi faced a serious problem in his congregation. During erev Shabbat service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and the other half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting theirs was the true tradition.
Nothing the rabbi said or did helped solve the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue’s 99-year-old founder. He met the old rabbi and poured out his heart. “So,” he pleaded, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?”
“No,” answered the old rabbi. “Then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers,” responded the younger man. “No,” answered the old rabbi. “Well,” the young rabbi answered, “what we have now is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout and the other half sit and scream.”
“Ah,” said the old rabbi, “that was the tradition.”
In Proverbs 15:1 Solomon, king of the nation of Israel, demonstrates his awareness of angry conflicts that boil over into our homes. The solution offered by the wise king is not for us to ignore angry words. Rather, he tells us returning harsh words with harsher words is non-productive and can heat up our relationships like a hot air balloon.
As we look at Proverbs 15:1 we are given an “out of the box” way of reacting to potentially heated exchanges and defusing a situation to open a door for God to bring His peace.
A gentle answer takes the hot air out of anger
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, has lectured on the powerful, often negative impact of words. He asks audiences if they can go 24 hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, another person. Invariably, a small number of listeners raise their hands, signifying “Yes.” Others laugh, and quite a few call out, “No!”
Telushkin responds: “Those who can’t answer ‘yes’ must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you can’t go 24 hours without drinking liquor, you’re addicted to alcohol. If you can’t go 24 hours without smoking, you’re addicted to nicotine. So if you can’t go 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, then you’ve lost control over your tongue.”
Are you living with someone who has lost control over their tongue? They berate you for everything. The amount of income you both have. The behavior of the children. The aging cars. The lack of extra spending money. The decaying neighborhood.
You have become the butt of your spouse’s anger and your relationship is suffering. As Solomon instructs us, the way you reply to your spouse or friend makes the difference for creating a peace rather than dissension.
What does Solomon tells us to do in a situation like this?
An answer should be given. In resolving an angry exchange, Solomon does not suggest heated words are dissipated by silence. Not even two days of a cold shoulder will do the trick. Instead, he calls for an answer to be given.
An answer should be calming. The retort to be given when a heated barrage of words is aimed in your direction is defined by the Hebrew word “rak” (רַּ֭ךְ), “gentle, nurturing, tender.” So if silence is not a workable response to anger and gentleness is, then what does it mean to be “gentle”?
- a gentle answer assumes compassion. The trick in a heated discussion is to see beyond the fever of the conversation and look carefully at the enraged person. We’re talking about feeling empathy.
The person with empathy will ask, “Why is this other person so angry? How can I communicate to them I understand. I want them to know that I “get” their anger. However, I also want to them to know some of their words are not acceptable and border on abusive speech.”
- a gentle answer is meant to deflate someone’s anger. To be gentle is not the ability to speak through clenched teeth and call it a “controlled response.” When that happens, the person trying to respond with a nurturing response may come off patronizing with an attitude of , “I am controlling my anger and you’re not.”
- A gentle answer takes responsibility when appropriate. A gentle response to an angry individual does justify their actions or chalk everything up to miscommunication. A person who seeks reconciliation will acknowledge whatever words or actions they committed that added to the outburst of anger.
- a gentle answer includes repentance and a request for pardon. Proverbs 15:1 does not spend time focusing on the one who broadcasts his wrath. There are plenty of other proverbs that do that. However, in this maxim King Solomon clues his readers we cannot control the anger of another person. However, we bear a responsibility on how we respond to the rage of another.
King Solomon advises the victim of an outburst not to respond in kind and add fuel to the fire. Rather, gentleness stops and thinks of the bigger picture of a relationship that needs to be salvaged. However, in the biblical context, controlling anger and not dumping more kindling wood on the blaze is not the final answer. The solution is repentance and forgiveness by one or both parties.
An answer is able to turn away wrath. Solomon’s goal is for us to dispel a tense situation by dissolving someone’s wrath or rage (חֵמָה). Being conciliatory in such a situation requires forethought, patience, self-control, and kindness – all virtues commonly lauded in Proverbs.
The goal when dealing with one’s anger is to sketch out how to bring God into the equation. That means “self” is taken out of the equation. Then power is removed out of the conflict. The issue of who will win this argument is removed. Both win when they turn the matter to God.
A harsh word turns up the thermostat on the heat of anger
Lt. Jack Cambria has spent more than a decade talking people down from the ledge. Until his retirement in 2015, he was the commanding officer of the NYPD’s hostage negotiation team for over 33 years. During his career he became an expert at saving fellow cops from gun-wielding maniacs or dissuading people to not jump off New York City’s skyscrapers or bridges.
What’s the secret to success as a hostage negotiator? Cambria says, “The very good negotiators are the ones with the life stories”— life stories of pain that have produced compassion for others.
God wants us to be good negotiators in talking people down from the ledge of their destructive anger. In the remainder of this proverb Solomon show us what actions to take that would wind down the heart of an angry person.
Stay away from using harsh words
- Don’t use words that provide no hope of resolve. Words like “never” or “always” are not a calming influence on an argument. When we refer back to an old argument that we thought was resolved, this makes the other party feel hopeless.
- Don’t trash the other person using damaging words. Yes, in the moment there are furious feelings spouting forth from your mouth. You want to make the object of your anger feel what you feel-unloved and ignored. So we make devastating comments, “I hate you!” “You are a horrible human being!” “Nobody likes you and no one ever will love you again.”
Be watchful over ways you stir up anger Harsh words can cause anger to “go up” (יַעֲלֶה). Here we delve deeper into Solomon’s warning on how we stir up the anger of another person.
- do not allow the other person to share their feelings. This happens when we talk over a person to drown them out or interrupt when they are attempting to give their perspective
- make another person feel what they have to say is unimportant. If a person starts to give their side of an issue, accuse them of lying about everything they are saying. The other person feel belittled and worthless.
- block any opportunity for humility or repentance. An exchange of heated words is not the best environment for asking for pardon. No one wants to ask forgiveness from a person who is roaring like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. If you show vulnerability before this angry person, you may get stomped on.
Yes, the goal is healthy communication, not out doing one another with more attacks. Yet a higher goal is to bring God into the situation. When anger is stirred up with heated words, both parties are not linking to one another or to the Lord.
A question needs to be asked in the heat of anger. What does the Lord want us to do right now?
Assume He desires us to humbly pray to seek Him. This is the first step in not stirring up anger and beginning the path to reconciliation.